The Second Sex & Literary Studies: The Definition of Wo(man)

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Woman as Other, creates the platform for a social movement that brings into question the role and definition of the female gender. This analysis of what dictates the female role and how it is projected culturally effects not just how we as a species view females; it also affects the fashion in which we understand and interpret different facets of socio- cultural life, regardless of whether or not they seem to have a direct correlation to the female gender. Literary studies touches upon not just how we interpret literature, but how we understand the many things that language helps produce. Feminism and de Beauvoir serve as an example of how language and the over- arching umbrella of “literature”, when studied and critiqued, can create ideas that one cannot come up with through simply “scratching the surface” of a text, or by ignoring the ways in which our society molds our knowledge- base.

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes “woman is losing her way, woman is lost”(de Beauvoir, 1). This is not just a claim she makes from her own weak- hinged fantasies- through an analysis of gender relations and literary/ philosophical works, she comes to this conclusion as she explains to readers how woman has come to be. Literary theory stresses that language is created in relation to other language. The word “woman”, is only known as woman because it is juxtaposed with the word “man”- we would not know the definition of woman if we did not know man. She states that woman is not man, but “other”. She is a sex, she is a womb- from the point of view of men that is(de Beauvoir, 1/ 4). It is “common sense”, or widely accepted that the female genitalia and ability to child- bear is what makes females “females”. Yet, just as literary theory serves to put common sense into question, de Beauvoir challenges this social construct by saying “every female human being is not necessarily a woman”( de Beauvoir, 1). This provocative statement is made well before the time of non- gender binary ideology that is just now becoming more popularized. This is a difficult concept to grasp when we think about how women are portrayed in writing and popular culture, which, as previously stated, is from a male perspective.

As literary theorist Laura Mulvey states in her piece entitled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, no doubt influenced by be Beauvoir’s feminist ideologies, women in cinema(and in many artistic media) are the object to be looked at, men are those endowed with the pleasure of looking. This also relates to Psychoanalysis and how both the conscious and the sub-conscious male self functions in relation to this “other”, being the female sex. One would think that subjects such as literature or movies do not always have to do with women specifically. However, the way women are represented in these cases sends a subliminal message in regards to male- dominated social views on the female sex. The performative of literary theory is also in play here, as the way the “feminine” female role(i.e. make- up, dresses, heterosexuality) is routinely performed in order for one to be considered “female”, in that the action gives context to the language. De Beauvoir and Mulvey both seek to de- construct these ideals in both language and action as they examine why and the means through which this gender differentiation exists.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone De. “Introduction, Woman as Other.” The Second Sex;. New York:

Knopf, 1953. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B., and Laura Mulvey. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The

Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.


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